The one-stop fashion incubator encouraging Arab entrepreneurs to go global

When you’re a creative, the last thing you want to think about is accounting and admin. The Fashion Incubator Middle East wants to encourage regional designers to take their brands to the next level by teaching them the essentials of business, writes May El Habachi.

Nohir Saleh is on a mission to promote fashion from the MENA region.

A passionate entrepreneur, she is helping aspiring and experienced designers set up and launch their fashion brands in the hopes of making their mark in the region and across the world.

But Saleh didn’t study fashion; she didn’t even study business. She actually graduated with a degree in engineering, a discipline that would lead her to her true calling. Joining her family’s denim factory in Cairo it was there that she fell in love with fashion and its manufacturing process. Through her work as a manufacturing manager, she also started to become aware of the common struggles fashion entrepreneurs faced.

“I always heard of new fashion designers entering the market [but] they all experienced the same struggles; whether it is the factory not producing what they want, not being able to find the right fabrics, or not knowing how to market their brand,” Saleh says.

Realising that there was no ‘one-stop shop’ for those who want to set up a fashion business, Saleh masterminded The Fashion Incubator (TFI) Middle East, and the idea came to life in 2017. With offices in Cairo and Dubai, TFI provides a full range of services such as fabric purchasing, production, marketing, and business mentorship.

A HIDDEN GEM

It is no secret that fashion is big business. The global fashion industry is estimated to be worth $2.4 trillion, according to The State of Fashion Report by McKinsey and will reach $55 billion in the MENA region by end of 2019, according to MENA Design Outlook report by the Dubai Design and Fashion Council.

This represents a huge opportunity for fashion entrepreneurs in the Middle East to design, produce and market their clothes – not only in the region, but globally. Today, TFI is working with 46 designers to help produce their collections. If these designers manage to establish and grow their brands, it could be a great boost for the industry.

“We have the know-how, the craftsmanship and the factories,” says Saleh. “The clothing industry is a gem. If we use it right, we could boost the industry and support our economies.”

But for this to happen, designers need to learn the business of fashion, she warns.

One of the key elements of being on par with global fashion trends, according to Saleh, is for regional designers to adapt to the international fashion calendar. This will help designers have their collection ready in time for each fashion cycle.

“It’s important for designers to understand the international calendar. For example, they shouldn’t start production of their summer collection in April. That’s too late. They need to plan ahead for the entire year,” she explains.

CHANGING MINDSETS

Although Saleh was fortunate to have the support of her family when launching TFI, she still faced her fair share of challenges.

Relying on word of mouth during the early stages of her business, Saleh was often pressured to produce high quality apparel with zero margin for errors. That didn’t always happen.

“Many times, we ruined things at first. We would go buy the fabrics and fix things at our expense. Today I’m proud to say that we have zero percent errors in our orders,” she says.

Another challenge was changing the mindset of craftsmen. Saleh explains that today many experienced craftsmen, particularly in Cairo, prefer to venture into more lucrative and flexible jobs. In addition, with the decline in local manufacturing, many have become complacent in producing low-quality products.

Saleh blames the industry.

“Many treat workers like they don’t have rights. They are usually not appreciated, their salaries are low and during the low season, some employers let them go because there is little work,” she explains. 

To counter this, Saleh pays higher wages and treats craftsmen like integral members of the team, involving them in meetings and production planning.

“We have rare craftsmanship. They are clever, but we just need to change the mindset,” says Saleh. “It took us a while, but now there is trust and we work together as a team. I can leave the factory knowing they will do the job well.”

Looking to the future, Saleh hopes to grow TFI to include production lines for each of her designers and have an international store, much like Marks & Spencer, featuring leading Arab designers.

“We’re here to uplift designers and hopefully create a ripple effect,” she concludes.